Astros still have to conquer Rangers, home-field struggles in ALCS

HOUSTON — While the climactic event from Game 5 of the American League Championship Series served the Houston Astros well, it did not enable them to complete their foremost task.

Houston secured a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series after Jose Altuve clubbed a dramatic three-run, ninth-inning homer that yielded a 5-4 victory over the Rangers on Friday and a sweep of all three games at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

By virtue of the seismic blast, the Astros moved one step closer to securing their third consecutive AL pennant, needing a victory in Game 6 on Sunday in Houston to avoid a winner-take-all affair in Game 7 the following evening.

The issue for Houston is its relative ineptitude at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros finished with a sub-.500 record (39-42, compared to 51-30 on the road) during the regular season prior to losing three of four home games this postseason. For all the success the Astros enjoyed in Games 3-5, plenty of hard work remains.

“What can I say?” Astros manager Dusty Baker said to queries about the team’s poor play at home. “I mean, if I had the magic words, I’d have said them like two months ago.

“So just got to get it done. There are no words that can describe what we have to do. Simply action.”

The Astros will need left-hander Framber Valdez (0-2, 11.57 ERA this postseason) to be markedly improved compared to his first two starts this postseason. Valdez struggled against the Rangers during the regular season, going 1-2 with a 4.32 ERA over three starts before allowing five runs (four earned) on seven hits and one walk while recording only eight outs in a 5-4 loss in Game 2.

Valdez has been plagued by inconsistency, recording a 2.51 ERA prior to the All-Star break before posting a 4.66 ERA over 14 starts in the second half. He has flashed moments of emotional volatility, and Houston will need Valdez to pitch with a steady hand.

“I think for me, I’m just going to try to do what I did in the regular season, just try to throw strikes, try to attack the strike zone and get outs,” Valdez said. “And … just try to control my emotions. I think I’ll be able to do that, try not to play with too much pressure or anything like that. I have to admit there will be emotions, but it’s my job to be really calm.”

The Rangers will counter with right-hander Nathan Eovaldi (3-0, 2.29), who limited the Astros to three runs on five hits and one walk with nine strikeouts over six innings in Game 2. Eovaldi has cultivated a reputation for postseason excellence, going 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA over 14 career postseason appearances, including nine starts.

If the Rangers are to keep their season alive and extend the series to a Game 7 that would shift pressure squarely on the reigning champion Astros, they will need Eovaldi to thrive once more and to overcome the emotions that marred the final innings of Game 5 and opened the door for Houston to seize momentum.

“I think Nate, his resume shows that he pitches well in important games,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “It’s going to be a great matchup.

“I’ll say this about the club: They’ve been tested all year.”

Astros reliever Bryan Abreu received a two-game suspension and an undisclosed fine for intentionally throwing at Adolis Garcia in the eighth inning of Game 5. Unless appealed, the suspension is to become effective in Game 6. If Abreu elects to appeal, then the discipline will be held in abeyance until that process is complete.